Sometimes the best way to tell a big story is through a little story. In her film Trapped, writer/director Manal Khaled uses that approach to tackle Egypt’s 2011 Revolution, which started on January 25, spread through the country, and led to the resignation of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Consisting of three vignettes focused on the experiences of women and girls during the ongoing demonstrations, marches, and riots, the narrative feature places viewers in the confusing and contentious time. It’s a well-meaning effort and offers some impactful moments, but even at only 77 minutes, Trapped belabors its points.
This ensemble cast (Coroline Khalil, Reem Hegab, Osama Abo El Ata, Ne’ma Mohsen, Mona Mokhtar, and Sara’a Jebel) is split between the three stories, which don’t overlap characters but are loosely connected in that they take place during the same day. Khaled’s intent, as described in the film’s press notes, is to portray these women fighting against the “shackles imposed by a patriarchal society.” That binds these stories, too. The police roaming the streets and gathering up protestors are crude, sexist, and ready to exact whatever vengeance they can on behalf of the government being protested against. They clash with the widespread mixture of wariness, chaos, and hope felt by people who have seen protests go nowhere before, but who begin to wonder whether this time could be different. In every story, we see and understand the distrust women have been trained to feel toward men as a result of the latter’s actions.
In the first story, a woman ducks into a man’s cellphone store to call home and check on her son. “If I don’t, who will?” she tells her mother of the dangers related to protesting. But it’s unclear whether this man could be entirely trusted. Little details clue us into the fact that this man might be an ally. He’s watching an old foreign movie on TV, and he has pictures of a child in his workspace. But he also asks her, “Are you Muslim or Christian?”—a question whose answer could be fraught. When a police officer comes into the store to chat at length with the owner about the protests (“A bunch of good-for-nothing impotent boys, and loose women who need a proper man.”), the woman ducks into the back to hide—is she going to be safe?
Predatory police are involved in the next story too, in which a woman irritated with the protestors’ disruption of people’s daily lives is called into work at the understaffed hospital. (“Do you think your protests will change anything?” she demands while watching news coverage of the riots on TV.) She leaves her tween daughter alone inside a locked apartment; outside, a woman who was fleeing the police ends up locked inside the building’s alley. When the woman makes her way inside, looking for a safe haven among any families willing to take her in or let her borrow a phone, she befriends the girl, who is confused and possibly frightened by what is going on outside her home.
That multigenerational dynamic continues in the third story, in which two women—a 20something and a 30something—are detained by the police, groped and insulted, and then dumped at a bathhouse. For women, this domestic space can double as a brothel. For the authorities, it doubles as a prison. “Where else could women possibly belong?” the police seem to be asking. While there, the two women protestors butt heads with the women who work at, run, and visit the bathhouse. But eventually, the opposing sides begin to warm up to each other. Could they possibly realize that they’re both being abused by the men in power? And if so, what kind of unity could that realization bring?
To Khaled’s credit, she’s committed to the concept of communicating the revolution through the girls and women at its fringes: the women working through this momentous moment in history because they need to support their families; the women taking to the streets and putting themselves in danger; the girls and teens looking at these women as their examples for the future. That’s all admirable. But Trapped is quite clunky in the execution. For every thoughtful small detail or moment, like the young girl and older woman in the second vignette joking around through a door with an array of locks on it, or the women in the bathhouse erupting into cheers when the protestor they thought was uptight takes her headscarf off, there is also overwrought dialogue or scenes that drag on a bit too long. Keeping the film’s focus so tightly on these vignettes, save for some newsreel footage here or there, doesn’t quite capture the grand scope of what the revolution wrought, or how it was positioned within the overall Arab Spring.
The film’s strengths and weaknesses are captured perfectly in its final scene, in which the on-the-nose dialogue (“I feel that this time is different … Maybe the unexpected will happen.”) is paired with a gorgeously slow pan upward, up the walls of this bathhouse, up toward a sliver of sunlight that is gleaming into the humid darkness of the room where the women are bathing together. The duality is a little too intentional but evocative all the same, and that goes for Trapped overall.
Trapped had its World Premiere at SXSW Online 2021.